Some years ago, I sought to identify the range of meaning of three terms or labels commonly used in political discussion as follows.
Left and right
I do not like and I try to avoid these terms, which come from the French Revolution, but I shall set out my understanding. The ‘left’ tend to stand for the poor and the oppressed against the interests of power and property and established institutions. The ‘right’ stand for the freedom of the individual in economic issues, and seek to preserve the current mode of distribution. The left is hopeful of government intervention and change; the right suspects government intervention and is against change. The left hankers after redistribution of wealth, but is not at its best creating it. The right stoutly opposes any redistribution of wealth, and is not at its best in celebrating it. The left is at home with tax; the right loathes it. These are matters of degree that make either term dangerous. Either can be authoritarian. On the left, that may lead to communism. On the right, you may get fascism.
What do I mean by ‘fascism’? I mean a commitment to the strongest kind of government of a people along overtly militarist and nationalist lines; a government that puts itself above the interests of any or indeed all of its members; a commitment that is driven by faith rather than logic; with an aversion to or hatred of equality, minorities, strangers, women and other deviants; a contempt for liberalism or even mercy; and a government that is prone to symbolism in weapons, uniforms, or its own charms or runes, and to a belief in a charismatic leader.
The word came originally from the Latin word fasces, the bundle of rods and axe carried before Roman consuls as emblems of authority, and was first applied to the followers of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, and then to the followers of Il Caudillo, Generalissimo Franco, and the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. Fascists are thick-skinned, thick-headed, and brutal. They despise intellectuals – who are after all deviants – but they may have an untutored and irrational rat cunning.
As Professor Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University tersely remarks: ‘The whole cocktail is animated by a belief in regeneration through energy and struggle’ (kampf). To an outsider, it looks like pure moonshine that is the first refuge of a ratbag and a bully, a brilliant and seductive toy for the intellectually and morally deprived, and an eternal warning of the danger of patriotism to people of good sense and good will. But while that ‘cocktail’ may look a bit much for Plato, it looks fair for Sparta.
Madeline Albright has written a book warning against a resurgence of fascism. Eastern Europe looks very bleak. You can make up your own mind about the application of those criteria to Trump. To me it looks a very close run thing. I am sick of hearing about him. I merely say that since Hitler died before I was born, Trump is the leading contender for the prize of the man most loathed on this earth during my lifetime.
I want to invite people to apply those criteria to Napoleon. Again at first blush that, too, looks close. Let me just quote some passages from a biography by the distinguished English historian J M Thompson.
Napoleon’s forays into Italy and Egypt were little more than robbery on a grand scale. He wanted to fund the rape of Egypt by robbing the Swiss. On the war in Italy, Napoleon said:
Discipline is improving every day, though we still have to shoot a good many men for there are some intractable characters incapable of self-restraint.
You may recall that his political career took off when he used artillery to disperse a Paris mob – Carlyle’s ‘whiff of grapeshot.’ Throughout his career, the Corsican was profligate with French life – something that scandalised his Grace, the Duke of Wellington.
Asians got it worse.
The Turks must let their conduct be ruled by extreme severity. Here at Cairo, I have heads cut off at the rate of 5 or 6 a day. Hitherto, we have had to treat the people tactfully, in order to destroy the reputation for terrorism which preceded our arrival. But now we must make sure that the natives obey us; and for them obedience means fear.
Could Hitler have improved on that descant?
Each stage or coup in the rise of Napoleon in France involved a franker appeal to force. Abroad, the urge for conquest was insatiable. His nationalism was only matched by his egoism. He said that he had made Italy a part of France. Madame de Staël had his measure. ‘The English particularly irritate him, as they have found the means of being honest as well as successful, a thing which Bonaparte would have us regard as impossible.’
In his 2014 book Napoleon the Great, Andrew Roberts said that Napoleon was great. This to me is like the myopia that leads Oxbridge to say that ancient Greece and Rome were civilised. He committed France to eternal war (la guerre éternelle) and then he lost that war. He left five million dead in the process. He left France a smoking rubble that it took France at least a century, and endless coups and revolutions, to come out of. And, fatally to the reputation of any soldier, he walked out on his own army – twice. And the only reason that Napoleon and his spurned soldiers found themselves in the sands of the Levant and the snows of Russia was his manic lust for la gloire.
But at least he had one clear policy. Make France great. And he then ruined the joint. As they say there, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.